Spiritually Grounded Activism

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Helena Meyer-Knapp
The Evergreen State College

Some social change agendas and strategies are derived from sacred texts, religious doctrines and traditional spiritual practices. Grounding ones public engagement in this way can lead to productive and insightful action but such efforts are often highly charged. Contemporary societies and communities vary widely in how well they receive such initiatives -- a martyr to one group will seem like a dangerous radical to the opposition. Intermingling politics and religion can taint both, leading to false pieties in politics and making mundane the prayers and rituals which were originally spiritual in purpose.


Groups and individuals seeking to structure social agendas have to create a sense of their purpose, and spiritual convictions often offer constructive guidance. Activists can find allies in the public debate by framing their position in religious terms. Personal resilience can be sustained by strong religious belief.

Constitutional separations between Church and State in North America and Europe are decidedly ambiguous about whether and how particular congregations should participate in public affairs. Other societies, notably those Muslim ones which base their law and the state itself on religious dogma, can find secular ethical criteria offensive. Furthermore, activism motivated by religion is often denounced as extremist by those whose motivations are strongly secular.


This pattern is illustrated by a series of historical examples intended to suggest its scope. The possibilities are many and varied. Read these stories while remembering that secular organizing can be just as powerful, legitimate and insightful.

Gandhi practiced and advocated "Ahimsa," the non-violent struggle for truth, inspiring an his part of the anti-colonist movement to center on that strategy. Derived from Hindu tradition, Ahimsa applied to all features of their lives, from confrontations with the British to the ways they lived and ate and worked together. Martin Luther King, working within the Christian tradition, was able to find the religious inspiration for a similar approach to non-violence in the US Civil Rights movement. Thich Nhat Hanh andhis fellow Buddhist monks used self-suffering in the Ghandian tradition to oppose the war in Vietnam. All three movements followed a religious injunction against doing violence, although in each it was recognized that they themselves might die. The strategy continues in use at the state level in the struggle between Tibetans under the leadership of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

For centuries Catholic nuns, monks and brothers have been engaged in providing health care, hospitality and basic succor to the poor and needy. In recent years that work gained world wide recognition as a result of Mother Theresa’s order in India. Their practice, like the non-violence movement is both a strategic imperative and an injunction for the activists to live a certain way, in this case sharing poverty and privation with those whom they help.

For the last 50 years, women’s reproductive systems and rights have been at the center of a wide range of conflicts. Papal Encyclicals and local health center policies are alike in their ability to stimulate confrontations about contraception and abortion. In parts of Africa, religious traditions have been the basis for both challenges to and support for female "genital mutilation" or "circumcision" as it is called, depending on ones perspective. Religion, life and birth have always been linked. The relationships between medicine and religion have become quite uneasy, as much at the end of life as at the beginning.

Debt and monetary interest payments mark another area where religions have guided and inspired action on the global scale. The Christian notion of Jubilee provided the doctrinal basis for groups around the globe to press the largest banks and richest nations to support debt relief for poorer nations in the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Meanwhile, working from the Buddhist perspective, writers and activists have begun to reconfigure the definition of wealth and materialism.

Sacred environmentalism is well rooted as well, both in the United States and around the world. Connected in the US to the Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, this movement has found a responsive reaction in many areas since place and sacred experience are so often linked.

At their best, religious practices serve not only to shape the mission, but also to guide organizational behavior. Silent retreat or a prayer meeting -- either can offer respite from the mundane. Singing together, marching together, sitting quietly in Quaker meeting together -- all of these can strengthen the sense of community. Charitable giving, cooking for the poor, visiting prisoners -- all of these can feel like religious practices when inspired by a spiritually grounded activism. Priests, Imams and other religious leaders offering blessings over an action, can ease the qualms and concerns of their followers. In all these ways, organizational resilience gains support from adherence to a religious or spiritual path. Marshall Ganz reminds us to see religion "not only as a source of “understanding” about what was right - but also as a source of the solidarity, willingness to sacrifice, anger at injustice, and courage, and leadership to take action - in other words, not only of moral “understanding” but the capacity to act on that understanding. Or, as St. Augustine said, not only of "knowing the good", but also of "loving it" enough to act on it. "

The stories in this pattern were chosen to illustrate constructive work undertaken by adherents in a variety of traditions. These same traditions have of course often been the basis for cruel, intolerant and self-righteous oppression, government and justice.


Remember the hymns and prayers of the American Civil Rights Movement, which exemplify ways that a healing religious practice can build solidarity among activists while holding them to laudable ethical standards. The injunctions embedded in this pattern are: by all means ground your own work in the values, the mysteries and the heritage of a religious community. At the same time, hesitate to judge others whose motives and practices are different. If secular values justify and guide your actions assume the best of those driven to act by religious convictions and likewise, if you are religious, give credence to the secular. In either case remember that ritual, whether sacred or secular, can strengthen bonds among organizers and provide them with the respite necessary to keeping on with the work of change.

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Some social change agendas and strategies are derived from sacred texts, religious doctrines and traditional spiritual practices. Grounding one's public engagement in this way can lead to productive and insightful action. Remember that ritual, sacred or secular, can strengthen bonds among organizers and provide the respite necessary to keeping on with the work of change.

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